Fiction Reviews

The Swarm

(2006) Frank Schatzing, Hodder & Stoughton, 12.99, trdpbk, 881pp, ISBN 978-0-340-8-9523-3


Off the West coast of Canada sight-seeing boats are being attacked by whales; around Australia and Japan swimmers are assaulted by jelly-fish; the beaches of Europe and North America are being invaded by plague-carrying lobsters and crabs; the continental shelf off Norway is having its methane hydrate deposits undermined by worms; near Peru fishermen are being capsized and drowned by schools of fish and eels; and everywhere water supplies are under threat by algae and unicellular creatures... Can there be a common cause behind all these phenomena? Well, duh! Seems there's this big super-intelligent hive-mind thingy, with perfect global memory, and it's gone and gotten good and pissed off at the opposable-thumbed, pink-skinned apes that've been screwing things up these past couple of millennia. Now it's decided to fight back, and it's up to a brave (but flawed) band of science types, with the not inconsiderable help of the US military, to fight back. An' stuff...

Frank Schatzing is a German advertising executive who, apparently, wowed the world in 2004 with this 'airport thriller' (the 2006 English translation being by Sally-Ann Spencer, who surely deserves some kind of medal for wading through this doorstep of a book); he was the author of five previous novels, none of which dealt with science or SF. And so it is admirable that Frank did so much research for this book. Trouble is, somebody should have told him that just because you did all that research, you do not need to include every last bit of it in the book! Especially when most of it is presented so poorly, in the sense of huge plot-slowing chunks and totally plot-irrelevant asides. And, so complex does he consider his novel to be, about every two hundred pages or so the reader has to sit through a dozen pages of plot recap, just in case they've forgotten what they have just read! Also, his characterisations are, for the most part, so poor that the reader has to suffer plot digressions of up to fifty pages at a time so that Frank can paint in some kind of backstory for his protagonists. And the ending (no I am not going to give it away) is so incredibly stupid that it does nothing to reward the investment in time of having waded through the previous 800 pages. The science, for the most part, is very good, but I see even the review in the science journal Nature says that it "drastically slows the plot", which, for an apocalyptic disaster novel is not good.

I'll hedge my next (and last) criticism by saying, maybe it is not Frank Schatzing not knowing a damn thing about science fiction (though I strongly suspect that this is the case), but rather that the character who puts forward the idea is just that way because that's how she is written, but... There is this SETI scientist on the team of scientists trying to save the day, and it is her job to communicate with the hive-mind creature(s), christened the yrr, and, at one point in the book, she is having to explain to the others how difficult it is to truly comprehend what an alien mind is like. And, by way of demonstrating how crap science fiction is at the task, she chooses some filmic examples (Alien for bad guys, CE3K for good guys [oh yeah?]) that supposedly show that all SF aliens are just metaphors for good and bad aspects of human nature. Well, even if we leave aside better film examples of alien life like, say, the crystal life-form in The Andromeda Strain, even if we say that film and TV are (generally) bad at depicting the alien, it seems a bit of a leap to dismiss an entire field of literature that, to some extent, specialises in depicting the alien as totally crap at the task. (I hope I do not need at this point, for this site's readership, to list the numerous counter examples that could be given.) And, though a minor point, it is funny how none of the scientists in the book are SF readers, considering how many such we at Concatenation know who gleefully read (and write!) SF. Seems to me like there should have been an SF writer on the team of save-the-day'ers - given that some of the scientists in the book are fictional representations of their real-life counterparts, perhaps it could even have been a 'real' SF-er (or go for a two-in-one; how's about Jack Cohen?). All this is especially galling when Schatzing's aliens turn out to be little more complex than the cellular automata of 'Game of Life' type computer programs.

Oh well, such criticisms aside, the book is quite likely to be a success (even if only with 'airport readers'), more so if the proposed film version comes off -- I understand that Uma Thurman, as producer, has optioned the rights, and that the movie is to star George Clooney and Lucy Liu. For once, the film version may be considerably better since, whoever is tasked with the script adaptation, they will have to cut out all the digressions and irrelevancies in order to make the movie more exciting than the book. Great research aside, I am afraid I cannot recommend this book to SF readers. It plods too much, it's too poorly written, it's insulting, and the ending really, really sucks. But feel free to ignore me... You never know when you might be suffering a long flight delay!

Tony Chester

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